Meeting heated on hotel tax issue

Tia Lynn Ivey News

A meeting turned contentious last week when a local lodging advocacy group appeared before the Madison-Morgan Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) board and Madison City officials to make their case against efforts to raise the Hotel/Motel Tax.

Mike Conrads, representing the Madison-Morgan Lodging Association (MMLA) led a presentation against increasing the Hotel/Motel Tax and criticized how the CVB uses current funds to promote tourism in the community.

“We are calling your baby ugly. Sorry. There are some issues with the way things are being done and we want to get past it,” said Conrads, who believes the CVB does not spend enough money on digital marketing, does not focus enough on promoting overnight stays in Madison, and does not employ an effective business plan centered around fiscal responsibility.

CVB members and City officials accused the MMLA of disingenuously criticizing the CVB solely to derail the proposed Hotel/Motel tax increase.

“The condescension going on with a lot of this has been frustrating,” said Dan Matthews, a CVB board member who works at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge. “It’s just really frustrating, as a volunteer and as someone who wants to help the community, for us to be, frankly, smeared like this, it’s disgusting—saying we don’t have business people on our board or smart people on our board.”

The heated debated centers around a local tax that hoteliers fear, if raised, will diminish their competitive edge and slow business, while city leaders hope to use the extra funds to better promote Madison as a tourist destinations, ultimately resulting in more business for hoteliers.  A Hotel/Motel Tax is a fee tagged on to the price of lodging rooms, paid for by the customer. The CVB, which promotes Madison and Morgan County, is funded through the Hotel/Motel Tax, which is currently at 5 percent. According to The City of Madison, “The Madison-Morgan County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), a nonprofit corporation partially funded through Madison’s hotel/motel tax, guides the very successful community tourism effort. The CVB employs a full-time director. In addition to operating the Madison Welcome Center, the CVB coordinates all regional marketing initiatives and concentrates upon promoting Madison and Morgan County to both national and international visitors. Tourism has become Madison’s leading economic engine and is instrumental to local economic vitality and community development.”

MMLA representatives and CVB officials squabbled over data surrounding the Hotel/Motel Tax, how it should be used, and which surrounding communities made for appropriate comparisons.

Madison City Councilwoman Chris Hodges wondered if any actions of the CVB would satisfy the MMLA. “What would make you guys be happy? If you are against the increase, will you ever be happy with what they do? What do you expect to be done with the additional money? But if your argument is that it’s just going to hurt our business no matter what, I think we are just wasting our time…Before this increase came up, I hadn’t heard any complaints from you all about the CVB.”

CVB Director Ellen Sims argued that she has done everything asked of her by the MMLA to show how the CVB operates and what their goals are for the future. The CVB passed out distributed their 2019 Plan for Growth, which includes increases to digital marketing efforts, social media presence, local content generation, adding emphasis on overnight stays, and working with hoteliers on marketing efforts.

“I feel like I have been kicking the ball down the field but the goal posts just keep moving further back,” said Sims. “It’s almost a defamation of all the work we have done.”

The MMLA representatives argued that the tax increase should not be considered until after the CVB makes improvements in how current funds are utilized.

“We want to take it off the table for the moment,” said Conrads. “We need to see where the current investment is going and that we spending it effectively. We are in business. We expect a return on that investment.”

Madison Mayor Fred Perriman implored hoteliers and CVB officials to come together to work for the benefit the entire community.

“We can meet half way,” said Perriman. “We are One Morgan, right? We are all in the same ship. I believe the CVB does a great job and I believe the MMLA does a great job. But nothing has been accomplished this morning, somewhere along the line we have lost communication between both parties. Both parties have to be together.”

“Now is the time to revamp and move forward,” said Perriman. “Let’s come around the table, MMLA and CVB, and let’s find a solution.”

The CVB and MMLA pledged to work together to cultivate common ground and common objectives for the future by the end of the meeting. The MMLA review the CVB’s new Goals and Objectives for 2019 after the meeting and were pleased with the changes.

“Beginning this month, we, the MMLA and the CVB, have committed to working together and, with the CVB’s efforts, I look forward to better performance for our industry in 2019,” said Conrads after the meeting. “I would like to personally apologize for the way our meeting this week turned confrontational and all sides became defensive.  It was not my intent, nor the MMLA’s, to have the session deteriorate as it did…The past year and a half leading up to this meeting has been frustrating for all of us.  Mayor Perriman, thank you for stepping in with your comments and guidance which is leading us forward – together.”

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